The Manbij Experiment: Rebels Make a Go of Governing in Liberated City

By Christoph Reuter and Abd al-Kadher Adhun

Rebels have taken responsibility for the administration in the first major city to be liberated in Syria. Bashar Assad's troops have answered the provocation with targeted air strikes on schools and hospitals. The regime is pulverizing large parts of the country's infrastructure, including access to fresh drinking water.  

Angry older people, unconcerned with decorum, are pushing their way into the room. They shout furiously at the stunned officials sitting behind their desks. The revolution is all very well and good, they say, "but where are our pensions?"

With some difficulty, the man from the justice committee manages to convince them to at least appoint a spokesman, so that they won't all talk at the same time. But they remain adamant. "You are the new government! So it's your responsibility to pay our pensions!"

A tribal leader watches the scene from an armchair on the side. A cleric and an attorney are sitting on a sofa, discussing rules for prisoners. And the new police chief wants to know how he is supposed to get his men back on the street. Although he has 24 new uniforms, there are twice as many police officers, and the police force also lacks ammunition for their service weapons.

The revolutionary council is meeting in a central building called the Serail, where the mayor, the police, the court and the land registry once had their offices, and where the strings of power once came together. Now the building has resumed its former function, except that the roles seem to have been reversed.

Left To Its Own Devices

What is currently happening in Manbij, once a sleepy provincial city in northern Syria, is the first future-oriented experiment in the midst of horror. While rebels fight regime forces elsewhere in the country, and entire towns are being bombed to pieces, Manbij is the first larger city in Syria to be liberated. Since regime forces withdrew in mid-July, local councils have governed the 150,000 residents of Manbij and the surrounding district, which is home to more than half a million people.

The army had withdrawn from large sections of northern Syria in the spring, but the fact that it simply abandoned an entire city is mainly the result of levelheadedness on both sides. A cunning real estate broker represented the opposition in several months of negotiations with the heads of the all-powerful security forces, and they quietly made a number of deals. The opposition agreed to limit protests to 15 minutes, and in return the security forces pledged not to fire on the protesters. The city also owes its good fortune to its relative isolation, which meant that it eventually became surrounded by areas under rebel control.

"By then it was too late to send troops," the broker, Ibrahim Sallal, says with a smile. "When the regime wanted to begin its war, all roads were already closed." The heads of the security forces and the Shabiha militias pulled out on the morning of July 19, while a group of 51 police officers defected to the rebels.

Manbij was left to its own devices. After four decades of dictatorship, its residents are suddenly faced with the task of running an independent city-state, one in which neither pensions nor survival can be taken for granted anymore.

Daily Air Strikes

Since mid-August, the regime in Damascus has been trying to destroy the parts of the country it was unable to hold. The Syrian air force launches daily air strikes against Manbij and other towns in the north. The goal is not so much to attack the rebels as they continually change locations, but rather the targeted destruction of the infrastructure. The strikes are aimed, in particular, at drinking water pipelines, grain silos, hospitals, government buildings and schools. President Bashar Assad's regime can no longer win the war, but it can prevent the other side from winning.

The rebels have little to counter the air strikes, for which the regime is using ordinary training aircraft. Their silhouettes in the sky look like those of World War II dive-bombers, and the attacks are carried out in exactly the same fashion, as the pilots dive sharply until shortly before reaching a target, release their bombs and then pull the planes back up again.

There is no mention of the air strikes on Syrian state television, which describes the regime troops' efforts as a "heroic struggle against the terrorists," whose attacks have allegedly wiped out entire city blocks. The accompanying footage is of the ruins of multistory buildings -- buildings that were in fact destroyed by the air force.

The more horrific the situation gets, the quieter the rest of the world becomes. At least 100 people are dying every day throughout the country, but news programs focus almost exclusively on the fighting in Syria's two biggest cities, Damascus and Aleppo. They make almost no mention of the aerial bombardment of other cities and towns.

Attempts to Mediate Fail

Last week, French President François Hollande called for international protection for the "liberated zones" in the north and threatened Damascus, saying: "We will not continue to remain silent." But that is precisely what is happening.

All attempts to mediate have failed, and United States President Barack Obama will not take any military risks before the presidential election in early November -- especially after a wave of violent rage swept through parts of the Islamic world, a mob killed the American ambassador to Libya and more than 20 people died during demonstrations in Pakistan, all because of the trailer of a film being shown on YouTube that derides the Prophet Muhammad.

No one in Manbij has seen the video, because no one can see it. There is no Internet in the city. All electronic connections to the outside world have been severed, and only the local fixed-line telephone network is still in service. But even without having seen the video, no one in Manbij understands the hysteria.

"We aren't criticizing the outrage of our Muslim brothers," says a cleric, "but where are the demonstrations against the bombardment of mosques in Syria?"

Meanwhile, President Assad claims that the situation is already much better than it was a year ago, but adds that it will take a while before government forces finally prevail over the terrorists.

'We Are Trying To Build a New System'

"It's madness," says Anas Sheikhawais, a key figure on the revolutionary council in Manbij and, in civilian life, the owner of a small ceramic tile factory. "We are trying to build a new system, even as the old one continues to bomb us."

Six people died on Sept. 20, when a bomb struck the main square, and a school and the courtyard at police headquarters were hit a few days earlier. Box by box, car by car, court files, marriage certificates and land registry documents are being moved to safety in the countryside, before a bomb strikes the Serail. The same thing was done in a small city farther to the south a few days ago. One of the attorneys on the justice committee calls it "rescuing the country from destruction by the government."

Fuel has to be smuggled into the city, officials are no longer being paid their salaries, and the only reason Manbij has electricity is that it's close to the Euphrates dam, which supplies large parts of Syria with energy. The regime is unlikely to cut off Manbij from the grid, because if it did the rebels could shut down the hydroelectric plant and cripple the power supply to half the country.

Basic Survival Concerns

The big questions being asked in the West, such as whether al-Qaida has infiltrated the revolution and whether there will be a civil war, are of secondary importance in the Manbij experiment. Instead, the city faces more immediate issues, such as whether the schools will be able to reopen soon, or what to do with the refugees from other areas that have taken refuge there. And if the schools reopen, where will the books come from, now that the central government is no longer supplying them? And what sort of flag should be hoisted so that the air force will stop attacking the schools when they reopen? The new, three-star flag? Too dangerous. The old flag? Out of the question.

The people of Manbij are more concerned about where they will be getting flour for the next month, and whether bread should still be distributed at the central bakeries, after lines of people outside bakeries were attacked several times in Manbij and elsewhere. They are concerned about drinking water, gasoline, elections and the desperate search for money. "We'll be broke in a month," says Sheikh Mohammed Ali, the interim city treasurer.

Difficulty Telling Who Is in Charge

It's also a question of who is in charge in Manbij. The council? The rebels with the Free Syrian Army (FSA)? And who is authorized to arrest whom?

One morning, an FSA unit picked up three severely abused individuals and their five kidnappers at a farm outside the city.

The kidnappers said: We are also with the FSA, and we have arrested three members of the Shabiha (the regime's notorious militia).

One of the three abused men said that they were merely farmers and had no idea why the others had kidnapped and tortured them.

They have all been locked up in the temporary prison, in the basement of the only hotel in Manbij, until it is clear who actually kidnapped whom. But within hours, a group of armed men from the kidnappers' tribe stormed the city, shooting into the air while men with the local FSA battalion, the "Revolutionaries of Manbij," did the same. Within seconds, shopkeepers closed their roller blinds and people ran for cover. Then the two groups negotiated and things calmed down again -- for the time being.

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